The concept of "governmentality" develops a new understanding of power. Foucault encourages us to think of power not only in terms of hierarchical, top-down power of the state. He widens our understanding of power to also include the forms of social control in disciplinary institutions (schools, hospitals, psychiatric institutions, etc.)as well as the forms of knowledge. Power can manifest itself positively by producing knowledge and certain discourses that get internalised by individuals and guide the behaviour of populations. This leads to more efficient forms of social control, as knowledge enables individuals to govern themselves.
"Governmentality" applies to a variety of historical periods and to different specific power regimes. However, it is often used (by other scholars and by Foucault himself) in reference to "neoliberal governmentality", i.e. to a type of governmentality that characterizes advanced liberal democracies. In this case, the notion of governmentality refers to societies where power is de-centered and its members play an active role in their own self-government, e.g. as posited in neoliberalism. Because of its active role, individuals need to be regulated from 'inside'. A particular form of governmentality is characterized by a certain form of knowledge ("savoir" in French). In the case of neoliberal governmentality (a kind of governmentality based on the predominance of market mechanisms and of the restriction of the action of the state) the knowledge produced allows the construction of auto-regulated or auto-correcting selves.
The notion of governmentality (not to confuse with governance) gained attention in the English-speaking academic world mainly through the edited book The Foucault Effect (1991), which contained a series of essays on the notion of governmentality, together with a translation of Foucault's 1978 short text on "gouvernementalité".
Kerr’s approach to the term is more complex. He conceives of the term as an abbreviation of “governmental rationality” [1999:174]. In other words it is a way of thinking about the government and the practices of the government. To him it is not “a zone of critical-revolutionary study, but one that conceptually reproduces capitalist rule” [1999:197] by asserting that some form of government (and power) will always be necessary to control and constitute society. By defining governmentality only in terms of the state, Kerr fails to take account of other forms of governance and the idea of mentalities of government in this broader sense.
Dean’s understanding of the term incorporates both other forms of governance and the idea of mentalities of government, as well as Hunt and Wickham’s, and Kerr’s approaches to the term. In line with Hunt and Wickham’s approach, Dean acknowledges that in a very narrow sense, governmentality can be used to describe the emergence of a government that saw that the object of governing power was to optimise, use and foster living individuals as members of a population [1999:19]. He also includes the idea of government rationalities, seeing governmentality as one way of looking at the practices of government. In addition to the above, he sees government as anything to do with conducting oneself or others. This is evident in his description of the word in his glossary: "Governmentality: How we think about governing others and ourselves in a wide variety of contexts..." [1999:212]. This reflects that the term government to Foucault meant not so much the political or administrative structures of the modern state as the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups may be directed. To analyse government is to analyse those mechanisms that try to shape, sculpt, mobilise and work through the choices, desires, aspirations, needs, wants and lifestyles of individuals and groups [Dean, 1999:12].
Dean's main contribution to the definition of the term, however, comes from the way he breaks the term up into ‘govern’ ‘mentality’, or mentalities of governing - mentality being a mental disposition or outlook. This means that the concept of governmentality is not just a tool for thinking about government and governing but also incorporates how and what people who are governed think about the way they are governed. He defines thinking as a “collective activity” [1999:16], that is, the sum of the knowledge, beliefs and opinions held by those who are governed. He also raises the point that a mentality is not usually “examined by those who inhabit it” [1999:16]. This raises the interesting point that those who are governed may not understand the unnaturalness of both the way they live and the fact that they take this way of life for granted - that the same activity in which they engage in “can be regarded as a different form of practice depending on the mentalities that invest it” [1999:17]. Dean highlights another important feature of the concept of governmentality - its reflexivity. He explains:
''On the one hand, we govern others and ourselves according to what we take to be true about who we are, what aspects of our existence should be worked upon, how, with what means, and to what ends. On the other hand, the ways in which we govern and conduct ourselves give rise to different ways of producing truth. [1999:18]By drawing attention to the ‘how and why’, Dean connects “technologies of power” [Lemke, 2001:191] to the concept of governmentality. According to Dean any definition of governmentality should incorporate all of Foucault’s intended ideas. A complete definition of the term governmentality must include not only government in terms of the state, but government in terms of any “conduct of conduct” [Dean, 1999:10]. It must incorporate the idea of mentalities and the associations that go with that concept: that it is an attitude towards something, and that it is not usually understood “from within its own perspective” [1999:16], and that these mentalities are collective and part of a society’s culture. It must also include an understanding of the ways in which conduct is governed, not just by governments, but also by ourselves and others.
The semantic linking of governing and mentalities in governmentality indicates that it is not possible to study technologies of power without an analysis of the mentality of rule underpinning them. The practice of going to the gym, expounded below, is a useful example because it shows how our choices, desires, aspirations, needs, wants and lifestyles have been mobilised and shaped by various technologies of power.
These three qualities: freedom, enterprise and autonomy are embodied in the practice of going to the gym. It is our choice to go the gym, our choice which gym to go to. By going to the gym we are working on ourselves, on our body shape and our physical fitness. We are giving ourselves qualities to help us perform better than others in life, whether to attract a better mate than others, or to be able to work more efficiently, more effectively and for longer without running out of steam to give us an advantage over our competitors. When we go to the gym, we go through our own discipline, on our own timetable, to reach our own goals. We design and act out our routine by ourselves. We do not need the ideas or support of a team, it is our self that makes it possible. The practice of going to the gym, of being free, enterprising, autonomous, is imbued with particular technologies of power.
In line with its desire to reduce the scope of government (eg. welfare) Neo-liberalism characteristically develops indirect techniques for leading and controlling individuals without being responsible for them. The main mechanism is through the technology of responsibilisation. This entails subjects becoming responsibilised by making them see social risks such as illness, unemployment, poverty, etc. not as the responsibility of the state, but actually lying in the domain for which the individual is responsible and transforming it into a problem of ‘self-care’ [Lemke, 2001:201]. The practice of going to the gym can be seen as a result of responsibilisation, our responsibility to remain free of illness so as to be able to work and to care for our dependants (children, elderly parents etc). This technology somewhat overlaps with the technology of healthism.
Healthism links the “public objectives for the good health and good order of the social body with the desire of individuals for health and well-being” [Rose, 1999:74]. Healthy bodies and hygienic homes may still be objectives of the state, but it no longer seeks to discipline, instruct, moralise or threaten us into compliance. Rather “individuals are addressed on the assumption that they want to be healthy and enjoined to freely seek out the ways of living most likely to promote their own health” [Rose, 1999:86-87] such as going to the gym. However while the technology of responsibilisation may be argued to be a calculated technique of the state, the wave of Healthism is less likely to be a consequence of state planning, but arising out of the newer social sciences such as nutrition and human movement. Healthism assigns, as do most technologies of the self, a key role to experts. For it is experts who can tell us how to conduct ourselves in terms of safe, precise techniques to improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and overall health. The borrowing from technologies of the market by technologies of the self can be clearly seen in the area of healthism. The idea of health, the goal of being healthy, the joys brought by good health and the ways of achieving it are advertised to us in the same manner as goods and services are marketed by sales people. By adhering to the principles of healthism, our personal goals are aligned with political goals and we are thus rendered governable.
Another technology of power arising from the social sciences is that of normalisation. The technology of norms was given a push by the new methods of measuring population. A norm is that “which is socially worthy, statistically average, scientifically healthy and personally desirable”[Rose, 1999:76]. The important aspect of normality, is that while the norm is natural, those who wish to achieve normality will do so by working on themselves, controlling their impulses in everyday conduct and habits, and inculcating norms of conduct into their children, under the guidance of others. Norms are enforced through the calculated administration of shame. Shame entails an anxiety over the exterior behaviour and appearance of the self, linked to an injunction to care for oneself in the name of achieving quality of life [Rose, 1999:73]. Norms are usually aligned with political goals, thus the norm would be fit, virile, energetic individuals, able to work, earn money, and spend it and thus sustain the economy. The practice of going to the gym allows one to achieve this ‘normality’. Through shame we are governed into conforming with the goals of Neo-liberalism.
Self-esteem is a practical and productive technology linked to the technology of norms, which produces of certain kinds of selves. Self-esteem is a technology in the sense that it is a specialised knowledge of how to esteem ourselves to estimate, calculate, measure, evaluate, discipline, and to judge our selves [Cruikshank, 1996:273]. The ‘self-esteem’ approach considers a wide variety of social problems to have their source in a lack of self-esteem on the part of the persons concerned. ‘Self-esteem’ thus has much more to do with self-assessment that with self-respect, as the self continuously has to be measured, judged and disciplined in order to gear personal ‘empowerment’ to collective yardsticks[Lemke, 2001:202]. These collective yardsticks are determined by the norms previously discussed. Our self-esteem is linked to our body image, and thus to improve our self-esteem we can improve our body image. Going to the gym is a great way of improving the physical shape of bodies, as experts can identify specific exercises that will work on particular parts of the body. Self-esteem is a technology of self for “evaluating and acting upon ourselves so that the police, the guards and the doctors do not have to do so” [Cruikshank, 1996:234]. By taking up the goal of self esteem, we allow ourselves to be governable from a distance. The technology of self-esteem and other similar psychological technologies also borrow from technologies of the market, namely consumption. A huge variety of self-help books, tapes, videos and other paraphernalia are available for purchase by the individual.
The technology of identity through consumption utilises the power of goods to shape identities [Rose, 1999:76]. Each commodity is imbued with a particular meaning, which is reflected upon those who purchase it, illuminating the kind of person they are, or want to be. Consumption is portrayed as placing an individual within a certain form of life. The technology of identity through consumption can be seen in the choices that face the gym attendee. To go to an expensive gym because it demonstrates wealth/success or to go to a moderately priced gym so as to appear economical. The range of gym wear is extensive. Brand name to portray the abilities portrayed in its advertising, expensive to portray commitment, or cheap to portray you unconcern of other people’s opinions. All of these choices of consumption are used to communicate our identity to others, and thus we are governed by marketers into choosing those products that identify with our identity.
These technologies of the market and of the self are the particular mechanisms whereby individuals are induced into becoming free, enterprising individuals who govern themselves and thus need only limited direct governance by the state. The implementation of these technologies is greatly assisted by experts from the social sciences. These experts operate a regime of the self, where success in life depends on our continual exercise of freedom, and where our life is understood, not in terms of fate or social status, but in terms of our success or failure in acquiring the skills and making the choices to actualise ourself [Rose, 1999:87]. If we engage in the practice of going to them gym, we are undertaking an exercise if self-government. We do so by drawing upon certain forms of knowledge and expertise provided by gym instructors, health professionals, of the purveyors of the latest fitness fad. Depending on why we go to the gym, we may calculate number of calories burned, heart-fate, or muscle size. In all cases, we attend the gym for a specific set of reasons underpinned by the various technologies of the self and the market. The part of ourselves we seek to work upon, the means by which we do so, and who we hope to become, all vary according to the nature of the technology of power by which we are motivated [Dean, 1999:17]. All of these various reasons and technologies are underpinned by the mentality of government that seeks to transform us into a free, enterprising, autonomous individual, Neo-liberalism.
Following Michel Foucault, writing on ecogovernmentality focuses on how government agencies, in combination with producers of expert knowledge, construct “The Environment.” This construction is viewed both in terms of the creation of an object of knowledge and a sphere within which certain types of intervention and management are created and deployed to further the government’s larger aim of managing the lives of its constituents. This governmental management is dependent on the dissemination and internalization of knowledge/power among individual actors. This creates a decentered network of self-regulating elements whose interests become integrated with those of the State.